Special Topics in Environmental Management

Pruitt’s EPA Sued for Nonresponse to FOIA Requests

The Sierra Club announced that it is suing the EPA and Administrator Scott Pruitt for allegedly failing to respond to requests the group has made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain information about ongoing interactions Pruitt and his staff are having with regulated industries.
Environmental Protection Agency sign
There is nothing about Pruitt that has enflamed environmental groups more than his ties with the fossil fuel industry. As attorney general (AG) of Oklahoma, Pruitt was a part of court actions opposing rules by the Obama EPA, which the industry viewed as illegal or economically oppressive.

In its complaint to the U.S. District Court for the D.C. District, the Sierra Club charges that, as administrator, Pruitt has maintained those close relationships with the industry in a secretive fashion, and the public has a right to know more. Accordingly, the Sierra Club and other groups filed their FOIA requests with the Agency seeking to obtain records of communications among Pruitt, his political appointees in the Agency, and representatives of industries regulated by the EPA, “notably, the fossil fuel industry and the mining industry.” According to the complaint, the EPA has failed to respond to Sierra Club’s FOIA requests in the timeline required by the law or even provided estimates of when such requests might be addressed.

Transparency Reduced

The complaint states:

“In conjunction with attempts to dismantle rules and practices that serve to protect human health and natural resources across the United States, Mr. Pruitt and his inner circle of political staff at EPA have apparently been implementing secretive and closed-door policies that imprudently reduce transparency about the agency’s operations and activities. On information and belief, these individuals—Mr. Pruitt and other senior staff who are the subjects of Sierra Club’s FOIA requests—have reached out to industry representatives for input on proposed changes without seeking commensurate input from other constituencies.

“At the same time, career staff are believed to have been uniquely restricted from meeting with EPA leadership; instructed to provide post hoc justifications for politically motivated, statutorily indefensible policy outcomes; and directed not to take written notes, in frustration of federal recordkeeping obligations.

“Meanwhile, at leadership’s directive, the public no longer has access to information that EPA once made publicly available. (Perhaps most conspicuously in that vein, EPA has removed from its website formerly prominent information about climate change—a phenomenon that, the scientific consensus warns, gravely impacts public health and the environment, but that tends to pressure Mr. Pruitt’s supporters in the fossil fuel industry to reduce carbon emissions.)”

Response Required in 20 Days

The Sierra Club says that it submitted its FOIA requests to the Agency in mid-June 2017, seeking the desired records of external communications and calendars of Pruitt and other senior staff. Under the FOIA, within 20 working days of receiving the requests, the Agency is legally required to provide the Sierra Club with determinations about whether the Agency would comply with the requests and to promptly begin producing responsive documents.

The complaint goes on to state that the EPA has told Sierra Club and other groups that it cannot comply with FOIA’s timelines and mandates due to an increased volume of requests and cannot even provide an estimate of when the Agency will begin to comply.

EPA Should Try Harder

“To be sure, EPA could seek to address that problem (taking the agency’s word for it) by dedicating greater attention or resources to responding to FOIA requests in a lawful fashion, and/or by improving the transparency of its operations so as to reduce the number of requests necessitated in the first place,” states the complaint. “Instead, EPA has chosen to engage in a pattern of unlawfully rebuffing, or vaguely and indefinitely delaying response to, FOIA requests from a variety of public-interest requesters, including Sierra Club.”

The groups ask that the court declare that the EPA has violated the FOIA and order the Agency to promptly respond to Sierra Club’s June 2017 requests as statutorily required, and begin searching for, identifying, and producing all responsive, nonexempt records to Sierra Club as swiftly as practicable.

The Sierra Club’s complaint is here.

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